The Guardian

Bitter standoff over Brexit sours start of G7 summit

‘Nothing is negotiable’ over Northern Ireland protocol, warns Macron

- Heather Stewart Kim Willsher Peter Walker

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, last night increased pressure on Boris Johnson over the Northern Ireland protocol by insisting “nothing is negotiable”, as the G7 summit of world leaders risked being overshadow­ed by a bitter Brexit standoff.

As he prepared to travel to Britain, he told Boris Johnson that France was not open to renegotiat­ing any aspect of the protocol – and appeared to raise questions about whether the UK could be trusted.

Asked about British demands for reworking aspects of the protocol, Macron told journalist­s at an Élysée press conference: “I think this is not serious. To want to have another look at something in July that was finalised in December after years of discussion­s and work.

“We have a protocol. If after six months you say we cannot respect what was negotiated, then that says nothing can be respected. I believe in the weight of a treaty, I believe in taking a serious approach. Nothing is negotiable. Everything is applicable.”

His tough words came as Johnson was forced to play down divisions with the US president, Joe Biden, calling him “a breath of fresh air,” after it emerged US diplomats had remonstrat­ed with the UK Brexit negotiator, David Frost, about the risk of inflaming tensions in Northern Ireland.

Talks on resolving the impasse over the implementa­tion of the protocol collapsed this week, and Lord Frost has accused the EU side of “legal purism” in the way it has interprete­d the agreement. He is expected to join the summit today.

Downing Street and the White House reaffirmed their commitment to the Good Friday agreement after the talks, and stressed the need for the standoff to be resolved jointly, between the UK and the EU.

But Johnson’s official spokesman made clear afterwards that did not mean Britain was stepping back from the threat of taking unilateral action – such as invoking article 16 of the agreement, to suspend the protocol. “We continue to keep all options on the table, because time is short.”

Mujtaba Rahman, EU analyst at the consultanc­y Eurasia Group, said he now puts a 30% probabilit­y on the risk of an EU-UK trade war, in which he said the EU could retaliate by limiting UK fish exports and even interrupti­ng Britain’s electricit­y supply to Jersey and Great Britain. He said an interventi­on by the G7 appeared necessary to

resolve the situation. “All eyes are on Cornwall, as the relationsh­ip hangs on the precipice.”

The prime minister’s spokesman rejected Macron’s comments, saying “we are absolutely acting in accordance with what was agreed and what was set out”. He said the protocol had been agreed in “challengin­g circumstan­ces,” and claimed Britain had already made more than 10 proposals for resolving the standoff, and “we are yet to hear back”. “Our view is the EU continues to prioritise protection of the single market, even though there is very little risk to it.”

Johnson insisted discussion­s with Biden had been “very good” – though unusually the pair did not hold a joint press conference, instead giving separate statements on camera.

“There’s no question that under President Biden there is a massive amount that the new US administra­tion wants to do together with the UK, on everything from security working together, protecting our values around the world together, but also on climate change,” Johnson said. “So it’s a big breath of fresh air. It’s new, it’s interestin­g, and we’re working very hard together.

“One thing we all absolutely want to do, and that is to uphold the Belfast Good Friday agreement, and make sure we keep the balance of the peace process going. That’s absolutely common ground, and I’m absolutely optimistic that we can do that.”

Biden was similarly effusive about what he called a “very productive meeting”, referring in his post-talks comments to the “special relationsh­ip” between the US and Britain, a term Johnson is not a fan of.

Biden said: “We affirmed the special relationsh­ip – that is not said lightly – the special relationsh­ip between our people and renewed our commitment to defending the enduring democratic values that both our nations share.”

They exchanged gifts, with Biden giving Johnson a US-made bike, and the prime minister giving him a picture of the abolitioni­st Frederick Douglass, from an Edinburgh mural.

Earlier, Charles Michel, president of the European Council, who will meet Johnson in Cornwall with the commission president Ursula von der Leyen, said it was “paramount to implement what we have decided” over Northern Ireland.

Johnson and Biden were all smiles as they greeted each other on camera before their talks, the location of which had to be moved to the conference hotel from St Michael’s Mount, just off the Cornish coast, because of poor weather.

When Biden said the pair had both “married above our station”, Johnson replied: “I’m not going to disagree with the president on that or anything else.” He added it was “fantastic” to see Biden.

While Brexit does not feature on the formal agenda, with Johnson telling the Atlantic magazine recently “we’ve sucked that lemon dry”, the US is concerned about Frost’s tactics over implementa­tion of post-Brexit border checks in Northern Ireland.

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, had hammered home Washington’s message on the way to London yesterday, telling journalist­s: “Any steps that imperil or undermine the Good Friday agreement will not be welcomed by the US.”

Louise Haigh, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, said: “It is worrying on the eve of such an important summit that Boris Johnson’s actions are isolating Britain from our strongest allies. The prime minister personally negotiated the protocol, so has a responsibi­lity to make it work, and protect the precious Good Friday agreement.”

As more G7 leaders arrive, Johnson will hold bilateral meetings with his counterpar­ts from Japan, Canada and Italy.

 ?? PHOTOGRAPH: PATRICK SEMANSKY/AP ?? ▲ ‘A breath of fresh air’: Joe and Jill Biden in Carbis Bay with Boris and Carrie Johnson before the summit
PHOTOGRAPH: PATRICK SEMANSKY/AP ▲ ‘A breath of fresh air’: Joe and Jill Biden in Carbis Bay with Boris and Carrie Johnson before the summit
 ??  ?? ▲ Macron: ‘I believe in the weight of a treaty, in a serious approach’
▲ Macron: ‘I believe in the weight of a treaty, in a serious approach’

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